City Council opposes BayWalk sidewalk give away
ST. PETERSBURG -- The City Council rejected Mayor Rick Baker's plan to cede the sidewalk fronting BayWalk to its owners Thursday after a heated public hearing that pitted business leaders against a host of impassioned political activists.
The council refused to so much as consider the matter, voting 4-4 against a motion to vote on the proposed ordinance.
The dissenting council members seemed poised to approve the measure at times, but ultimately a majority vote could not be reached.
Council members Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner, Wengay Newton and Herb Polson voted the measure down.
"I find it really hard to believe that we couldn't bring them all together and come up with a solution," said Curran, who urged BayWalk's owners to reach out to protest and free speech groups.
More than 150 people crowded into City Hall Thursday morning. A divided crowd of roughly 70 residents spoke for almost four hours prior to the vote.
"This is the most difficult decision I have faced in my two years on City Council," said council member Jim Kennedy.
The vote followed months of passionate debate from proponents on both sides of the controversial land give away.
Critics decried giving away public land celebrated by free speech activists as the city's soapbox. Others expressed doubt that BayWalk's owners would follow through on the $6 million investment or that the sidewalk give away would shore up the failing entertainment complex amid a national recession.
"This is just a plain lousy deal," said political activist Michael Fox.
Proponents, including the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, St. Petersburg College and the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, applauded the land give away as a step toward reigning in the unruly behavior some fear has chased customers away from BayWalk.
"Relinquishing the sidewalk of BayWalk to its owner and development team should be a no-brainer," said Tom Sexauer, president of the Downtown Business Association, during the public hearing.
The land has been zoned for public use since at least 1889.
Mayor Rick Baker and his staff diligently worked to sell the proposal to council members and downtown business leaders in the final days before the vote.
Rick Mussett, the city's development administrator, answered questions about the sidewalk vacation at a Downtown Business Association meeting last week.
Newton said staff members met individually with him Wednesday morning to explain the benefits of privatizing the sidewalk. When that didn't work, they brought in a BayWalk property manager to also promote the deal, Newton said.
The American Civil Liberities Union vowed to challenge the land give away on constitutional grounds that citizens have the right to assemble on public land.
"Those are the values that people fight and die for," said Glenn Katon, a senior attorney with the ACLU of Florida.
Katon cited four legal cases where the privatization of public land used for activity protected under the First Amendment was overturned.
"If we challenge it, we will win," Katon said.
City Attorney John Wolfe, however, assured council members that those cases differed significantly from the BayWalk issue. The city would be able to defend any legal challenges, he said.
"The First Amendment will not be violated by this vacation," he said.
The land request was not unprecedented. City Hall has ceded various strips of public sidewalks and alleyways to property developers in recent years.
However, the city's longtime economic investment in BayWalk, coupled with its popularity, set this land deal apart.
Promoted early on as the city's town square, BayWalk quickly became a gathering spot for teenagers, anti-war demonstrators and late night revelers, as well as a symbol of downtown's potential.
Previous efforts to cede the sidewalk were swiftly abandoned after drawing public outrage.
But BayWalk's recent economic troubles added a new caveat to the longstanding debate. The complex's storefronts and dining areas are mostly vacant. Moviegoers are flocking to theaters in Pinellas Park. As attendance dwindled, protesters also opted to stay away.
"We need this to happen in order for our business to survive," said Mike Wilson, Muvico's senior vice president of strategic corporate development.
Council member Karl Nurse said he was torn by the decision before him, but he ultimately voted affirmatively.
"If we say no, just like Johnny Rockets closed this week, this is a spiral down and this place will be closed shortly," he said. "We have to turn this around. I don't think asking the protesters to protest across the street is as nearly a difficult a choice as the consequences of saying no."
Some opponents painted the sidewalk deal as an effort to ban black youth from the complex to ease the discomfort of older white residents.
"How good for the city's image will it be if black youths and protesters are arrested for standing on the sidewalk?" said St. Petersburg resident Marianne Huber.
Danner dismissed the notion.
"This isn't a race issue," he said.
BayWalk has been struggling to turn around its embattled image in recent months.
Dozens of new security cameras have been added throughout the complex and the city was asked to fence off dark and secluded areas in the adjoining parking garage. Plans to repair BayWalk's escalators are in the works, as are new landscaping, lighting and paint.
Managers are pursuing local, family-friendly restaurateurs to occupy the center's second floor.
"Our perspective tenants made it unequivocally clear that they will not sign a lease unless the sidewalk is vacated," said Thomas McGeachy, of Ciminelli Real Estate Services, BayWalk's property manager. "Without tenants there can be no revival of BayWalk."
Cristina Silva, Times staff writer